The Great Depression of the 1930’s tested America’s political institutions like no other event in our history except the Civil War. Much as Lincoln saved the Union and established the symbols of American nationalism, so Franklin Delano Roosevelt (it is said) saved capitalism from itself and laid the framework for the American welfare state.
The dimensions of the crisis faced by FDR were overwhelming. From late 1929 to early 1933, real economic output in the United States declined by 30 percent and unemployment grew from 3 percent to 25 percent. More than a third of the country’s banks failed in that period, leaving depositors broke and destroying much of the credit system. Some of Roosevelt’s early measures—deposit insurance, banking reform, and taking the U.S. off the gold standard—slowed the contraction but did not restore the economy to health. In 1938, the unemployment rate was still 17 percent. In 1940, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II and as FDR ran for a third term, unemployment still hovered above 14 percent.